HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf's budget proposal plan to tax local communities without police departments to cover the cost of local protection provided by state police is DOA, lawmakers say, as the June run-up to the 2019-20 budget approaches.
While that's not the only controversy that lawmakers will confront in the coming weeks, most still say that with a strong economy as a boost, they are cautiously optimistic a budget deal will be completed on time or early.
Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday. They are scheduled to be in session each week in June with a deadline to pass the budget by the end of the month.
Wolf’s police plan, made in his February budget proposal, would have municipalities that rely on state police pay fees based on their size, beginning at $8 per person in the state’s smallest and scaling up to $166 per resident in communities with more than 20,000 people and no local police.
Rural lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the plan carries far too much risk that communities in their districts would be asked to pay more without gaining anything.
“Anytime you take money and send it to Harrisburg, it doesn’t work out for the rural areas,” said state Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer County.
The governor’s plan would focus on communities without police, but other lawmakers said that it would make sense to take a long look at how much time and resource the state police invest providing aid to local police protection whether there’s a local police department or not.
State Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, said that a small township may not have a local police department but its residents may only summon the state police 50 times a year. On the other hand, the City of Philadelphia has a police department, but it still asks state police for service 30,000 times a year, he said.
“The number one municipality, they serve is Philadelphia,” he said. The state police fee “is a non-starter,” Gordner said.
State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, agreed that the political headwinds against the state police fee plan seem too strong because too many lawmakers across the state will feel like their area would lose out.
“It didn’t get any momentum when times were tight,” he said. The chances that the fee gets traction now seems less likely, Longietti said.
Other possible sticking points:
New tax on drilling: Wolf has proposed using a new tax on gas drilling activity to cover the payments on a bond for infrastructure. Republicans have resisted the idea and floated counter-proposals including a measure to expand drilling in state forests.
Vouchers: The state House earlier in May approved a plan that would greatly expand tax credit programs that benefit scholarships for children to attend private schools.
How much should we save? Lawmakers announced earlier this month that surprisingly strong tax revenue in April meant the state’s heading into the budget negotiations with an extra $800 million. Legislative leaders and the governor have indicated they’d like to put much of that into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, but lawmakers note there could be ample debate over how else the state might use that money.
Wolf made it clear when he announced his “Restore PA” drilling tax proposal earlier this year that he is unshackling the plan from the normal budget process. But Wolf has been heavily promoting the idea for months and lawmakers made it clear Thursday that the plan is getting attention.
State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, said that the state needs to take a look at the measure. She pointed to this week’s nasty weather as an example of how the money could be used. Damage from many of these storm events is not large enough to trigger federal aid. Providing state aid for storm victims would be among the litany of things Wolf has said the state could do with drilling money.
State Sen. Pat. Stefano, R-Fayette County and state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Beaver County, have said that rather than taxing drilling the state could get additional funding by opening up more state forest to drilling activity.
Wolf opposes that idea, which may be unconstitutional, his spokesman J.J. Abbott said.
Schwank said the House proposal to boost the tax credit programs for private school scholarships could be a controversy that’s not gotten much attention yet.
“I know we’re talking about it” in the Senate Democratic caucus, she said.
Under that plan, which passed the state House by a 111-85 vote on May 8, the state would increase the number of tax credits available from $110 million to $210 million and would make future increases automatic.
The measure has yet to move in the state Senate. The idea is not being warmly received by the governor.
“Wolf would be hesitant to increase funding for business tax credits at the expense of funding desperately needed to go into the classroom,” Abbott said.
On the question of how much the state should save, lawmakers said that while there will be pressure to increase spending, there seems to be broad consensus in favor of making a substantial deposit in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
Longietti said that may make sense because if there is an economic downturn the state would be in a position to tap into the savings to avoid having to cut funding to programs.
Gordner said that neighboring states have savings amounting to an average about of 10 percent of their general fund budgets. Pennsylvania lags well below that average. The state made a $22 million deposit into its Rainy Day Fund last year, meaning the state has saved enough to operate “for a few hours,” Gordner said.
State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, said that if lawmakers are looking for something else to spend money on, the state should make an additional payment toward its pension obligations.
While there are plenty of areas where lawmakers will have decisions to make ahead of the June 30 deadline, none of the controversies on the horizon seem daunting enough to upset budget negotiations, he said.
“There seems to be a desire to do this amicably and early,” Everett said. After clashing with Wolf in the governor’s first term, lawmakers “seem to have established a pattern of recognizing what’s possible” in making deals with Wolf, he said.